Pub food is going through a transformation, with veganism and healthier options on the menu, yet still with a traditional taste. Will Hawkes finds out more
There are certain things you expect to find in a pub. Beer? Of course. Customers? You'd hope so. Beams, handpumps and etched glass mirrors? There's a very good chance. And for those pubs that do food, you'd expect there to be a pie or two on the menu.
Some of the UK's best food-led pubs define themselves by their pies. At the Marksman in east London you might, depending on the season, enjoy the rabbit and cep pie; across town at the Guinea Grill, the steak and kidney pie is hard to resist. In Stockport, the Crown's chicken, ham and mushroom pie is award-winning, while the Brandling Arms in Gosforth is famous locally for its steak and ale offering.
What all these dishes have in common, of course, is the inclusion of meat. There are plenty of vegetarian pies, but vegan pies are thinner on the ground. However, a Welsh company, Saveg, is aiming to change that. It was set up in 2018 when its founders grew frustrated with the lack of vegan comfort food.
Comfort and joy
"We found that there was really no lovely, soul-comforting vegan food," says Maria Marling, who runs the business with Marysia Thompson. "It was all healthy and it wasn't really hitting the spot. We thought, what's really comforting but could be plant-based? And what's more comforting than a pie and chips, really?"
Saveg is the inevitable result of the vegan revolution that has swept across Britain over the past few years. The presence of vegan dishes has increased by 54.8% on UK menus year-on-year, according to the MCA Menu and Food Trends Report 2019. What was once a very niche culinary preference has now planted itself in the mainstream and in pubs up and down the country.
Vegan food is often characterised as an east London foible, for the sort of people who obsess over the hops in their beer and would have vapours at a loaf of supermarket sliced white. But Marling and Thompson launched their business in the food markets of South Wales, having done hours of testing in their Cardiff kitchen, and only opened a factory with the help of three angel investors. Now they're ready to push the product into foodservice and supermarkets.
There are currently four pies available: Hoisin Jack (made with pulled jackfruit, edamame beans and carrot cooked in a sticky hoisin sauce), My Thai Pie (made with baby corn, edamame beans and broccoli cooked in a spicy Thai green curry sauce), Leeky Shroom (mushroom and leeks cooked with tarragon and red wine), and Goan Then (composed of roasted cauliflower, sweet potato and peas, cooked in an aromatic Goan-inspired curry sauce).
Clearly, it's a concept based on bold flavours. "A lot of people think of veganism as missing out on value because you're not having the meat," says Marling. "We really wanted to make flavour and vegetables the heroes. If you're not having meat, you need to have massive flavour – in our opinion anyway – to make it desirable. We've got plant-based pies with explosive global flavours."
My Thai has been the most popular thus far, she adds, but the diversity of the pies means they appeal to a wide audience. "If you're looking for your traditional Sunday lunch replacement, then you'd go for the Leeky Shroom," she says. "If you wanted something a bit different with chips and a pint, the Thai green curry is great because it's spicy. Men really seem to jump on that. They love it.
"The Hoisin Jack is quite sweet, which typically appeals to Gen Zs and millennials like me, brought up in the Ribena era, where they like sweet things. That goes down quite well with them."
This variety means they can realistically hope the pies will capture consumers outside the vegan fold. "We're going for flexitarians," she says. "It's not so much about creating great vegan food, it's just about creating great food in general. Anyone would pick it up, because it's got crazy good flavour, you know?"
The progress of other vegan options suggests she might be on the right path. A British company, Moving Mountains, has enjoyed success with a variety of meat substitutes, from burgers to sausages. Among the most impressive is its hotdog, launched last year, which can be found (among other places) at the Unity Diner in London's Hoxton. It's an impressive recreation of a meat-based hot dog, made largely from sunflower seeds, with the textural snap and smoky flavour you'd expect.
Moving Mountains isn't the only company to make vegan burgers. Central Foods has recently launched two new vegan-friendly burgers for foodservice: the KaterVeg beetroot, quinoa and seed burger, and the KaterVeg Flamin' Inferno burger.
"In the past couple of years, 68% of adults have chosen to cut down or cut out meat from their diet, according to The Source, so offering vegan burgers will be popular not just with those who don't eat meat, but with meat-reducers and flexitarians too," says managing director Gordon Lauder. "The secret is to offer visually appealing, tempting burgers that taste great and can be teamed with exciting burger buns and accompaniments like sweet potato fries and healthy salads."
From Finland comes Gold&Green's Pulled Oats, a 100% plant-based mix of oats, broad beans and peas that, the manufacturers claim, has more protein than chicken and beef. "They have a mild and tender taste, taking on the flavour of any dish or cuisine," says Simon Solway, country manager for UK and Ireland. "They're super-versatile, are precooked for fast preparation and can be used in hot or cold dishes. Their flexibility means caterers can swap them into tried and tested recipes, as well as getting creative in the kitchen."
All this vegan activity is based on growing statistical evidence that suggests more people are interested in being at least partially meat-free. The Future of Food report by Sainsbury's, carried out in 2017, says that by 2025 half of Britons will identify as flexitarians. Kantar Worldpanel found in 2019 that a total of 4.4 billion meat-free dinners were consumed worldwide in 2018, an increase of 150 million on the year before.
Research this year by Meatless Farm indicates that 37% of consumers believe restaurants should offer a strong plant-based menu, and one in three consumers would like the option to "go meatless" on all dishes rather than from a separate menu. The OnePoll survey of 2,000 UK adults, carried out in May, also demonstrated that these changes were being driven by younger people.
It's no surprise, then, that much of the excitement in pub grub and beyond is focused on vegan options. Alongside long-established options such as Quorn, suppliers are clamouring to proclaim how vegan-friendly their grub is, from Lamb Weston's recently launched Dukes chips to Aviko's potato skins and Meatless Farm's range, which includes free-flow mince, ready to heat bolognese, meatballs and cannelloni.
"It's not about reinventing the wheel for chefs, but offering high-protein alternatives to meat that deliver on taste, texture and cookability," says Jade Dodds, foodservice and QSR director at Meatless Farm. "There's a real opportunity to create familiar, delicious food, including pub favourites like bangers and mash and spaghetti bolognese.
"It's also important that operators remember that the vegan/veggie friend in a group will most likely dictate where the group dines, depending on the menu options available. So by having a menu that caters to all dietary requirements, operators can really drive sales and footfall to their venues."
The health kick
According to Matt Grenter, foodservice sales manager at Brioche Pasquier, there's a growing demand for healthier pastries. "There's a push for less additives and unsweetened, cleaner recipes," he says. "All our desserts are baked with fresh fruit, butter, eggs from uncaged hens and other wholesome ingredients. We make them free of hydrogenated fats and preservatives and use natural colours and flavours whenever possible."
Polarbröd believes breakfast trends are having an impact on pubs. "Breakfast and brunch have been the fastest-growing eating-out occasions in the UK for a while now, and this has had an impact on the type of cuisine we're seeing on pub menus," says Jenny Jeppsson, concept manager at Polarbröd. "Breakfast-style menu items that we used to just associate with morning consumption are now being served throughout the day; we are seeing a ‘brunchification' of pub menus."
Making food in-house is worth the while, according to Carpigiani and Synergy Grills, makers of ice-cream machines and outdoor cook stations respectively. "Making ice-cream, gelato and sorbet in-house offers significant profit opportunities for an operator," says Scott Duncan, sales director for Carpigiani UK. "We have released six different-sized pieces of equipment that will suit any business, from a small restaurant with a more compact kitchen, through to a larger restaurant with more covers."
Back in South Wales, Maria and Maryana have big plans for the next few months. Coronavirus set them back, temporarily, but they're ready to take their vegan pies to the next level. "It's about surviving 2020 and getting ready to fight in 2021," says Marling. "I'm getting so much interest and response from buyers."
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